Book Review: Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude Get a Life by Maureen McCarthy (Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014)

This year I am reading and rereading children and young adult ‘classics’ written by Australian women. Read more here.

(I couldn't find a good image of the cover I have, so I decided to go with this most recent one instead)

(I couldn’t find a good image of the cover I have, so I decided to go with this most recent one instead)

Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude Get a Life by Maureen McCarthy
(1995, Penguin)

Own copy

(Note: Totally coincidentally, my wonderful friend Liz also read and reviewed this book at the same time. And then I twisted her arm to join the AWW Challenge 🙂 )

This was another one of my favourite books as a teenager and I’ve read it a number of times since. It’s the story of three different girls from a small country town thrown together into a share house in Melbourne for their first year out of school. Carmel is the shy farm-girl, known around the small town for her amazing voice. Jude is the radical, juggling medical studies with protests while being haunted by the violent death of her father. Katrina is from a privileged and well known family, renowned for her beauty and her snottiness. Told from the three different perspectives we follow them up close and through each other’s eyes as they navigate the world after school.

There’s a lot to tackle in this book, and it’s definitely bigger than a lot of similar books. To me, Queen Kat, Carmel and St Jude has always had an almost epic feel – like a fantasy novel without the fantasy. Maybe because of the different journeys we follow over the course of the book – as Carmel becomes more comfortable with who she is; as Jude confronts what her parents went through in Chile; as Kat gets over her head with a ‘fast crowd’ – the reader is pulled along, from one story to another, one place to another.

This time, when I read it, I was struck by how sad Kat was, especially at the beginning of the book. She seemed almost disconnected from herself and from other people, separate from any kind of human emotion. She didn’t want to have anything to do with a school-mate who had lost her father, she broke her mother’s favourite vase because she didn’t feel she was getting her way. She knew how to ‘act’ in social situations – after all, that training would come with being from the eminent family in a small town – but she seemed deeply uncomfortable and unable to deal with human emotion, and humans in general. I think Kat’s story wouldn’t have worked anywhere but at the end of the book, where we’ve been exposed to glimpses of who she is underneath the act – it would have been terribly tiring to read her performances earlier in the book.

Despite the mid-nineties publication of this book, it mostly works as a read for a modern audience, especially (I suspect) a modern audience living outside of Melbourne. (There are a number of settings which have apparently changed significantly in the time, but an outsider reader wouldn’t necessarily know that). The themes themselves are timeless – trying to please parents while forging an identity away from them, learning to live in a bigger world than your school world, finding a voice in a world that often tries to shut people up. The characters, including the supporting characters, are well developed and memorable, and you can often ‘see’ them as you read. And although there are a lot of ‘issues’ explored (especially in Kat’s story) it doesn’t read like an ‘issues’ book.  I’d definitely recommend it to high school students today, and I suspect a lot of them would enjoy it.

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5 comments

  1. Isn’t Kat interesting? I mean, I love all the girls, and Jude is a character type we rarely see in YA, but there’s something quite stunted about Katerina. It comes back to her parents, who are so concerned with status etc that they cut her off when the scandal erupts.

    I almost feel like Kat’s background is the least convincing part of the book, but I have to admit, I’ve not spent much time around rural aristocrats.

    I’m exactly halfway through the mini-series, and I’m a little scared to watch Kat’s section. Although it can’t be more harrowing than Jude’s, which really got into her own PTSD.

    1. I don’t think I’ve ever found her as interesting in the past as I have this reread. I think there’s some interesting ideas to be thought over about the influence of her parents over here – especially the way her mother is so concerned never to show emotion, even to her children.

      We didn’t really have rural aristocrats in Peachester – old families, but not aristocrats 🙂 There were definite divides between new families and old, though, so Carmel’s family were probably more acceptable to Kat’s family than Jude’s mum would have been.

      I haven’t seen the mini series since it first showed and I don’t remember it very well- I’ll have to see if I can track it down around here

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